Syria, an overview of the situation with discussion of possible outcomes

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Original title: “Syria: proxy war towards a division of the country into protectorates?”

Marco SANTOPADRE

in Contropiano

October 26, 2015

October 27, 2015

Translated from Italian by Tom Winter

Predictably, the Free Syrian Army – the minority side (in spite of the massive support of US and the petromonarchies) of the islamist insurgency against Assad – said ‘no’ to the offer of the Russian military assistance, offered over the weekend by Russian foreign minister Lavrov. 

The head of diplomacy in Moscow stated that the Russian air force would be ready to provide air cover to militants of the Free Syrian Army – so far rather heavily affected by Sukhoi air strikes – provided they commit themselves to fight the jihadists of the Islamic State and also that Washington provide Russian military commanders with relevant information for the location of the “moderate rebels and the extremists. 

A few hours later, during a speech to the British BBC, a spokesman for the pro-Western militants said that Moscow is not reliable and therefore they do not need the help. “Vladimir Putin is helping a regime that kills its own people indiscriminately,” said Issam al-Reis, “so how can we trust the Russian aid?” Another FSA commander, Ahmad Saud, also rejected Russia’s call for new elections in Syria, in preparation for the formation of a transitional government and the end of the civil war: “Russia bombards the Free Syrian Army and now wants to work with us, while remaining engaged with Assad? We understand nothing.” Samir Nashar, a member of the so-called Syrian National Coalition, entailing the various liberal and Islamist forces opposing the regime in Damascus, told AFP: “The Russians are ignorant of the reality on the ground with millions of people displaced in Syria or fleeing abroad. The towns are destroyed. What kind of elections can be organized in such circumstances?” Quite understandable that the variously led enemies of Syria are worried about the obvious flop in any upcoming election.

The fact is that Russia continues to win position and role in the Middle East chessboard, at the expense, of course, of the already precarious US influence in the area and also to the detriment of the strategies and interests of the regional powers that are theoretically allied with Washington, mainly Saudi Arabia and Turkey. 

As recently published, after the Iraqi government did it, the Jordanian government has also signed an agreement with Moscow, thus creating a second anti-ISIS military coordination center in Amman, a country traditionally the orbit of the United States but worried that the spread of jihadism can upset its internal equilibrium. Under the agreement reached, officials in Amman and Moscow should work together to coordinate actions against the Islamic State in Syrian territory by sharing logistical and intelligence information. 

The Russian military intervention in Syria has completely changed the pre-existing scenario: the international coalition led by the United States is opposed by another international coalition now formed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Syria, with some countries – Iraq and Jordan – participating in both . This while Moscow is pressing the United States on the effectiveness of their raids against the Islamists and offering to collaborate with Washington to coordinate the bombing and avoid accidents. Obviously Russia hopes to regain a position of strength at the international level starting from hottest region, the Middle East, where the US has more clear strategic difficulties than in any other area of the globe. 

Counteracting the destabilization managed by the US and the petromonarchies in Syria and Iraq means for Moscow an easing of the pressure exerted by NATO against Russia in recent years, which increased after Moscow’s reaction to the pro-western coup organized in Ukraine by the chauvinist pro-Western formations. If they want to deal with the future structure of Syria, Washington and Brussels from now on will have to give something back on the Ukrainian front. 

Putin intends to stabilize Syria by supporting the government, and helping its allies in the area – Iran in particular – and to prevent the fall of Damascus that would create a new wave of jihad that would be detrimental to its strategic interests in the area and detrimental also the security of the Russian Federation, further fomenting Islamist rebellion in the Caucasus. 

The head of the Kremlin has repeatedly warned about the dangers of the 4-5,000 fighters from the former Soviet republics who have joined the various jihadist gangs operating in Syria and Iraq. 

Moscow has taken advantage of the apparent American slippage to position itself as a peacemaker and an unselfish power, that is willing to deal with its enemies in order to put an end to a conflict that threatens to explode the entire Middle East. 

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The Syrian conflict has always been, and even more now, a proxy war between regional and world powers, as well as a civil conflict with ferocious consequences, animated by political, ethnic, and religious rivalries. An element that has not escaped Beijing, where the Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, has accused the US and Russia of fighting war by proxy, warning that such a “Cold War mentality” belongs to the last century and that only a political solution can put an end to the contention. 

One cannot escape the conclusion that the massive direct intervention of Moscow has made a military victory of the anti-regime forces (backed by the Sunni axis, by the United States and in various ways by the European Union) impossible. On the other hand neither can the loyalist reconquest of the jihadist-rebel territories be considered ready to hand. 

In fact we could now be watching a resurgence of fighting with a view of a possible concluding agreement between the government and opposition, and between the powers embroiled in the conflict, which could crystallize the situation on the ground; an extremely bloody stage before the possible diplomatic solution in which each factor in the field tries to gain more space, more land, more influence so that they can get to the negotiating table in the best position possible. 

Several times in recent years, the idea of the partition of Syria has been presented as a possible solution to a civil war that can have no winners. The solution may be of interest to the United States, as well as to the petromonarchies and Turkey, which may be content to get their hands on a piece of land if they can’t get all of it. For them, the destroyed “failed states’, disrupted by decades of Western de-stabilization in the Middle East, Asia, the Balkans, and Africa don’t matter. The solution of a Syria divided in two could also be acceptable – as a last resort, of course – for the Syrian loyalist forces and the powers that support them, which could consider it a momentary concession until such time as a reorganization and a change of the currently unfavorable balance in the region would allow a victorious campaign to recapture the lost land.

The fact is that a few days ago the New York Times even dedicated an editorial to the possibility that Syria may be divided not into two but even three or four parts, considering a “Middle East Bosnia” as a “lesser evil.” Though stanchly against the “cunning of Putin” and accusing the US administration of being too ‘submissive,’ the newspaper reported some of the questions raised by the debate between political leaders, entrepreneurs and ‘think tanks’ at Valdai Club, in Sochi, on the Black Sea. These include the option of a Syria just divided into zones of influence: The regime – with those apart from the support of Assad lining up in a multinational, multiethnic, secular state respectful of religious differences – would save perhaps Damascus and certainly the majority Alawite coastal areas around Latakia (where there is also a Russian naval base Tartus, the only one Moscow has on the shores of the Mediterranean), while the opposition might have acknowledged sovereignty over central and eastern regions of the country.

The problem – especially for any eventual Western sponsors of the partition – is that the opposition is very diverse; the various groups are in stark contrast to each other: would the ‘moderates’ (as they call the ones more inclined to obey Washington) come out on top, or would it be the jihadist groups like the Al Nusra Front or even the Islamic State — an undesirable event both for Moscow and the countries of the Shiite axis. 

Delivering half of Syria to the cutthroats of Al Qaeda and Al Baghdadi would also be intolerable for some of those same countries that for years have been supplying the jihadists with weapons and money, in their hopes to cut down the Syrian government but at the same time not have them strengthened enough to become a threat to the interests of Washington or the feudal petromonarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. 

So instead of dividing Syria into two zones, the New York Times adopted the ethnicity-based idea promoted by Fabrice Balanche, head of the French think tank “Group for the Study of the Mediterranean and the Middle East:” there should be more zones, which would meet the demands of a larger number of international actors in the field. For example, Israel could become the sponsor of a Druze ‘canton’ on its borders. While in the north, Kurds could become completely autonomous, modeled on the Kurd autonomous zones already imposed by the invaders and the US occupiers in northern Iraq, with the establishment of a Kurdish semi-state subordinate to the interests of Washington, Israel, and Turkey. 

Obviously in this case Ankara might have something to say, given that Erdogan’s army has been bombing Kurds for months.* In the Sunni region, still following the French apprentice sorcerers relaunched by the NYT, the “moderate rebels,” massively supported by the West, could effectively counter the Islamic State without having to worry about the attacks of Damascus. Only an agreement between the powers like that of the 1995 Dayton Accords for Bosnia, warns Fabrice Balanche, could ensure the holding of such a complex and contradictory architecture. 

But apparently the sorcerer’s apprentices overlook that the world has since changed radically; if in 1995 the only surviving globally inchallenged superpower could impose by hook and by crook its diktat on the other actors by hook or by crook, nowadays the increasingly weak US must deal with their growing weakness and with a not inconsiderable number of competitors both regional and international. 

Then again, Piotr Dutkiewicz, professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, a veteran of the Valdai Club, points out that Moscow would find it very difficult to tolerate a partition of Syria: “To contribute to the division of Syria would be perceived as in direct contradiction to the principle of the defense of sovereignty, a principle essential to Moscow for its internal politics. ” According Dudtkiewicz, “another scenario is more plausible: the weakening of the opposition to Assad, making a compromise possible, and this would be the creation of a loose confederation within the current Syrian boundaries. So unity would be preserved, at least formally; the opposition not only would save face, but would also get a say.” But there are three conditions “not to be taken for granted,” if this framework has a chance, “the US and its allies must accept it, Israel must remain neutral, Russia must be strong enough to continue the operation in Syria for one, two months again”.

* [Asterisk is link to Turkish use of the Syrian war] 

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